Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Traffic hazards, lazy policemen and corrupt doctors

Despite riding my electric bike through Tiananmen Square almost every day on my way home from teaching, on this particular day, I couldn’t help but to marvel at the sight of the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City. The latter is a relic of a 5,000-year-old civilization, somehow preserved through a tumultuous history. The former is a symbol of China’s rising power and authoritarian grip on a population of 1.3 billion people. And in the middle of the two, a 10-lane highway crowded with cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles and bikes. As I ride past, my eyes pause for a minute on the fa├žade of the Forbidden City, framed in front of the setting sun, at the end of a rare blue-sky day in Beijing….

Smash! The front of my electric bike collides with a bicycle that had been meandering its way through the wide boulevard. My bike turns, falls and skids across the pavement…

Slowly I get up, dust myself off and realize I’m not injured, although my electric bike has a few scrapes and dents. Then I look over at the bike I hit. Somehow the bike is still standing (I guess because I hit it from behind?) and an old man is sitting on the ground behind it. A young man – another foreigner – had seen the accident and run over to see if the old man was ok. I set my bike upright again and paused for a second, unsure what to do. Then I walked over to the old man and offered him my hand. He also didn’t seem to be injured, but waved my hand away as if he didn’t want my help. Thinking there was nothing more I could do, and a little wary that the police might come over soon, I went back to my bike and was preparing to drive away.

Suddenly the old man jumps up, runs over and grabs my keys. He tells me I can’t go anywhere until I call the police. I try to wrestle the keys away from him, but he’s got a death grip hold on them. Then he sits on my bike and refuses to get up until I call the police. He claims that I hurt his shoulder in some way, and gestures for me to feel the bone in his shoulder. Sure enough, a bone in his shoulder is clearly in a place where it shouldn’t be. However the man does not appear to be in any pain, and there is no blood, bruises or any other sign that this is a new injury. “Shit man, this is fucked up,” says the other foreigner, who appears to be a European guy about my age. He knows just as well as I do what’s going on – this old man wants to blame me for a pre-existing shoulder injury and try to get some money from me. “I think you’ve got two choices,” says the other foreigner. “Either push him off your bike and make a run for it, or do what he wants and call the police.”

I looked down at the old man, stubbornly sitting there, grasping the seat of my bike. The man was obviously already crippled – he also had a deformed foot that was missing a few toes. I couldn’t bring myself to push him onto the ground and ride off, and the thought of abandoning my electric bike didn’t occur to me at the time. In retrospect, this was mistake #1 (I was to make many more that night). So I decided to walk over to the nearest intersection (a few hundred feet away) and talk to one of the police officers there. In my experience police officers would rather turn a blind eye than deal with petty cases like bicycle accidents, so I thought that the police would probably be slow to respond, and in the mean time I could convince the old man to get off my bike. But of course he wouldn’t budge until the police came.

After several police passed by the scene, a car finally drove up, accompanied by an ambulance. The police asked me for my passport, and I told them I’d left it at home (it was actually in my bag, but I was hoping if they thought I didn’t have my passport they might not want to bother and just let me go). The police proceeded to take pictures of the scene, ask about what happened. I told the police officers that I thought there was nothing wrong with the man, but they said only a doctor could make a judgment about that. I called a Chinese friend of mine to ask what I should do in this situation. He said I should go to the hospital with the man and have the doctor look at him. A simple examination should prove that there was nothing wrong, and probably only cost a few hundred RMB. I had a few hundred RMB with me at the time, and I tried to offer it to the old man in exchange for letting me go, but he refused. The police ordered that the old man be taken to a hospital, and since I didn’t have my passport, I was to come with them first to the police station (another police officer would take my electric bike and store it somewhere).

I called my roommate, who came to meet us at the police station to help me translate and resolve the situation. There were several police officers there, and they were all joking, smoking and taking there sweet time. They asked me some questions, like where I live, what I’m doing there, who I’m working for, etc (I gave them as little true information as possible). They kept asking if I had my passport, and just seemed to be stalling. My roommate pointed out that we should get to the hospital as soon as possible, to make sure they don’t run any expensive procedures that I then might have to pay for. The police offered to take me to the hospital, but they said I first needed to take them to my apartment to get my passport. I was getting impatient to get to the hospital, and at this point I figured the hospital fees would still be less than the cost of replacing my electric bike (if I was to try and escape from the situation at this point, abandoning my bike). So at my roommate’s suggestion, I pretended to search in my bag and discover that in fact I had brought my passport with me that day. I gave it to the police officers (mistake #2) so they could make photocopies; take down my information, etc. Finally, we headed off to the hospital with the police officer who had originally arrived at the scene. On the way I asked him to give me my passport back, but he said, “I still need it to fill out some forms.”

We arrived at an ominous looking building, which turned out to be the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hospital. “Why the hell did they take him here?” I thought, and a feeling of dread started to spread in my stomach. When we went inside, I found out that the old man had been admitted to surgery. His daughter, sister and brother in law were there with him, and they told us that the doctor had said he required a metal plate to be inserted into his shoulder. The assured us that they didn’t want to do the surgery, but the doctor was insisting that it needed to be done. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so my roommate and I called on the doctor to speak with him directly. The doctor approached us timidly, and said that yes, indeed the man needed surgery. When my roommate asked if the injury was caused by the accident, he bit his lip, looked down and said “probably.” He was obviously lying. There’s no way it wouldn’t be obvious whether an injury like that was recent or old, and this infuriated me. Afterward my roommate told me that is was quite common in China these days for doctors to proscribe extra and unnecessary procedures so they can make more money.

Meanwhile, the police officer was writing up a statement about the accident that he wanted me to sign. When my roommate read it to me, it described the accident accurately, but also said that because of the accident the man had sustained serious injuries. I refused to sign the statement on this basis. I was beginning to feel as if I was in a small room that was shrinking in on me every minute, and soon I would be squished into a position with no room for movement. This was all a big conspiracy between the family, the doctor and the police to get money from me, the “rich” foreigner. Then the police officer, who had been acting like an asshole toward me from the beginning, said he wouldn’t give me back my passport until I signed the statement. I began arguing with him and insisting that he re-write the statement, but he refused, and said, “let’s go back to the police station.” When we got outside, my roommate strongly advised me to not to go back to the police station. “If you go back there, there’s a good chance they will try to detain you for the night. There will be several of them and only one of you.” This idea frightened me, especially because my phone was running out of power so I wouldn’t be able to call anyone. So I told the police officer we weren’t going back with him and that we’d follow up the next day. When I said this he began to get aggressive. He got out of the car, came around to my side and tried to force me into the car. A rush of adrenaline filled my body, and I pushed back, trying to break free of his grip. Police officers in China are not allowed to carry any weapons, so it was simply his brute force against mine. Finally I broke free and made a run for it….


The next morning I called the US Embassy to report the incident. I told my story to one of the Deputy Chiefs, who was very understanding, but in retrospect was not all that helpful. He had someone from the embassy call the police station to ask why they were keeping my passport and on what grounds. After a few hours he called me back and said that the police responded that they were willing to give my passport back, I just needed to come into the police station and give them a statement about what happened. I remained optimistic that weekend that the situation would be resolved quickly when I went back to the police station. It also seemed to me that if the old man were truly faking the injury, the family would hold off on performing the surgery, for fear that they would have to pay for everything if I had disappeared. However that was far from the case.

I was told that the case had been transferred to another police station (on the opposite end of the city – don’t ask me how that makes sense) and that I should call them the following week to arrange a time to come in and talk. I wasn’t able to reach them on Monday and Tuesday, as no one ever answered the phone. Finally on Wednesday I decided to just go there myself with a Chinese friend who could help me translate. As I was getting ready to leave, I got a call from the police and was verbally assaulted by an angry police officer who demanded to know why I hadn’t come to the station yet. When I arrived, the police officer in charge of the cased, a Mr. Jiang, was less than friendly, and immediately demanded that I sign a form saying that they would be keeping custody of my passport, “until the situation is resolved.” They refused to discuss the accident any further until I signed this paper. This was of course not what I was expecting. An hour long stand-off ensured, during which I called one of my bosses (a middle aged Chinese guy) and he argued with the police man about why they were keeping my passport. It seemed that the police had no legal basis to keep my passport, but that because I had already run away once, they needed a way to ensure that I wouldn’t disappear again (and anyway, things rarely happen according to the law in China). Over the course of this discussion, I also discovered that the doctor had already performed the surgery over the weekend, to the tune of 30,000 RMB, or a little less than 5,000 USD.

The encounter ended in a stalemate. I refused to sign the statement for the time being, and I spent the next few days exploring other options, such as applying for a new passport through the US embassy. When I talked to the Deputy Chief again however he advised against this, saying that even without my passport they could potentially put a hold on my name at immigration that would prevent me from leaving the country permanently. He also said that the US embassy could not “quote the law” to the police officers, so they had no basis to demand that the police give me my passport back. He advised that I get a lawyer.

Over the next several days I asked for advice from the various people I know in Beijing about what I should do. There was some good and bad advice, but the consensus seemed to be that I had the right to see, and needed to find a way to get a copy of, the old man’s medical records and take them to another doctor to be examined again. This of course proved to be much easier said than done. One day I went to the hospital to try and find the doctor who had operated on the old man and see if I could convince him to give me the records. However all I had to go on was the name of old man (If I had been thinking clearly that night I might have thought to ask for the doctor’s name). In the bureaucracy of a large hospital, it took me over an hour to finally find my way back to the ward where I had been on the night of the accident. When I asked for the old man by name however, the nurses said they had no record of him and that he’d probably already left the hospital. I searched around for the doctor I had talked with on that night, but he was nowhere to be found.

I had a Chinese friend call the daughter of the old man and diplomatically ask if we could see the medical records. My friend told her that if the accident was truly my fault, I’d be happy to pay for the procedure, but that we needed to see some evidence first. She dodged the issue by saying that she needed to speak with a lawyer first to see what their rights were.

When I went back to the police and asked for their help in attaining the records, they claimed that there was nothing they could do either. They had already issued a decision on the case (the accident was entirely my fault) and they claimed that the family no longer wanted to talk with me and that I would have to take this to court if I wanted to protest further (which was a lie, as I called the daughter again later and she said they didn’t want to go to court). The police just wanted to get this off their chest and not deal with it anymore. When my boss called them back and demanded that they give my passport back if they weren’t going to help me, he learned that they had already entered my information into the immigration system. Now if I try to leave China, my name will be flagged with “suspicious activity.”

My bossed also helped me to look into getting a lawyer who could potentially help me use the law to get access to the medical records. She is a Chinese lawyer who came highly recommended from my boss’s friend, and apparently has over 20 years of experience dealing with cases in China involving foreigners. But she bills $200 USD an hour, and if the case where to go to court, I’d probably end up paying her even more than the cost of the surgery. She also didn’t sound too optimistic for my case. According to her, the family would indeed need to provide medical evidence in order to make me pay for the surgery, but I didn’t have the right to get the medical records myself and take them to another doctor. This is not very encouraging, because another Chinese friend pointed out that “medical records are created by humans, and what was created by humans can be changed by humans.” The doctor would also have an interest in covering up his trail if indeed he performed surgery unnecessarily.

Needless to say, at three times my monthly salary, it would take several months to save up enough money to pay for the old man’s surgery. If it is determined that the old man was handicapped from the injury, a process which will start three months after the accident, I could be required to pay more, for up to 2 years after the incident. In the meantime, I would basically be a prisoner in this city. Without my passport I can’t check into a hotel, take an airplane or do any banking. And even with my passport, I would not be able to leave the country.

I’m not going to let this happen. I’ll find a way to get the medical records and prove that I didn’t cause the man’s injury. But in the meantime, I need to explore other avenues for getting out of this. So I’m asking all of you who are reading this: if you have any suggestions or connections in China that could help me solve this, I would be grateful for your help.

Despite this catastrophe, my life has been progressing in a very positive direction over the last several months, and I remain optimistic that, whatever comes out of this situation, I’ll find a way to handle it.

The adventure of life continues.